To fear of flying, fear of driving and fear of heights add a phobia that strikes its victims every four years or so: fear of voting.
"Once I got all the way up to the voting booth," said Ruth, a 48-year-old Alexandria housewife. "The lines were very long, the anxiety started to build. When I got inside, I couldn't close the curtain on myself. I became so panic-striken, I walked away as fast as I could."
Although the number of victims may be small, sufferers of "voting phobia" say the affliction is particularly painful because it interfers with their civic duty.
"I asked the woman at the polling place to explain how the machine worked," said Jane, a 41-year-old woman from Chevy Chase. "I remember not being able to hear her, my anxiety was so high. I wanted out of there, and yet I felt a tremendous obligation to vote. The rest of it was a blur. I voted, but only for president. I was unable to stay in the booth any longer."
Like others who suffer from phobias, the "voting phobic" experiences a panic attack, a sudden surge of fear accompanied by heart palpitations, shortness of breath and a general feeling of disorientation.
"I made myself go," said one sufferer. "It was crowded, I signed my name, so I felt trapped. I stood in line. It was hot. I felt like I was going to faint, or fall over. Finally, when I was fifth in line, I left."
While the prospect of having to choose from among Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and John Anderson may cause many voters to break out in a cold sweat, phobics react more to the polling place than to the pols.
"It's fear of closed booths, crowds of people, waiting in line, signing their name and physically getting there," said Jerilyn Ross of the Phobia Program of Washington, whose counselors will accompany fearful voters on election day for $25 an hour. "Just about every phobia comes into play. I bet 90 percent of our patients don't vote."
But absentee ballots aren't always the answer.
Mel Rappleyea Sr., secretary of the Fairfax County Electoral Board, remembers one man who came in to cast an absentee ballot. The voters were asked to use a machine instead of a paper ballot. The man became enraged. "I don't know whether he was afraid of it or he just couldn't believe they were honest," said Rappleyea.
"In any case, we have paper ballots here for anyone who doesn't want to use the booth. There's no reason to think they'll stick out like a sore thumb."
Some of the "voting phobics" suffer from agoraphobia, fear of going outside their house. Others, like Phyllis Freeman of Chevy Chase, are afflicted with specific fears. "Planes, elevators, bridges and voting booths, I guess," she said.
Freeman has voted, she said, but only "under extreme stress."
"I'd pull the damn curtain and go like hell, hitting all the things I'd checked off on the sample ballot. Sometimes I didn't make them all. Fear had overcome me," she said, explaining that her behavior was "truly phobic in that it is truly irrational."
But Melvin A. Gravitz, a Washington psychologist, said the fear -- at least this year -- may be rooted in reality. "I've noticed a very definite increase in my patients' anxiety levels," he said. "More so than in years past." Gravitz, who said he treats a number of government employes, said this year's election "has brought out a lot of anxiety in people who feel matters are out of their control. It has really brought out tension in people. And, in many of them, fear.
Duty and obligation only make it worse, said clinical psychologist Lawrence I. Sank. "It's a double approach avoidance conflict. You think other people are demanding something from you. I think they [voting phobics] are also afraid of being put on the spot, of other people watching them. It all adds up."
Said Melvin Gravitz, "I expect a lot of my patients will improve in two and a half weeks."